Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.

The Commencement Speech No One Will Ever Hear

Ah, the end of May and the beginning of June. Time for graduations far and near. And so, completely unrequested and with the full knowledge that it will never be given verbatim, here is the commencement speech I believe is truly the only one that is worth hearing. The intended audience is, obviously, a group of men just commencing their journey as ministers of the gospel.

Friends, graduates, fellow academicians, lend me your ears. I come not to praise you, but to bury you. For only if you have been buried can you send forth new life – and it is to a new life that we send you today. Prepare, then, to have a little dirt thrown your way.

First, I congratulate you. This is indeed a momentous occasion for you. You have, to use Paul’s epic words, “fought with the beasts” and you have emerged victorious. Not everyone can do what you have just done. Not many would want to, mind you, but whether they did or not, they could not finish what you have finished. By your presence here you have demonstrated that you have mastered the art of translating Greek and Hebrew sentences, that you can differentiate between exegesis and hermeneutics, and that you can hold your own in written debate with the likes of N.T. Wright. Your guides, your shepherds, your academic guardians have all attested to your intellectual fitness to hold the degrees which will be conferred to you. Your parents, your siblings, and perhaps your spouses all hold you in the highest esteem. Today is truly a great day.

Get over it.

I’m serious. Enjoy the day to its fullest. Bask in the limelight while it is still shining brightly. Dine sumptuously. Drink deeply of all the huzzahs and congratulations. But, this is just the beginning. If you stopped growing following the great celebration of the day of your birth, you would not be here today. Today is the beginning, not the end. That’s why we call it a “commencement.” But there is another, darker reason why I counsel you to “get over it.” You will learn of this reality all too soon.

I know each of you is committed to a life of ministry – whether in a congregational ministry or perhaps in an academic post or a missionary field. You have no thoughts of failure, or of abandoning your quest. Sadly, the statistics of life-long ministry do not support your optimism. Amid the unbridled euphoria and the sweet fragrance of success that floods the room today, let me caution you about what your future holds. It will not be pretty.

Let me use, as a parable, my life first as a flight student and then as a flight instructor to illustrate my words of warning. As a flight student the second greatest day that you experience is the day you solo – the day that you control the airplane as sole occupant. The feeling is simply beyond description. You know you are up to the task, and your flight instructor has endorsed you to do just that – fly the plane by yourself. But you know, in the back of your mind, that you are still flying on the legal basis of your flight instructor. You can take off and land by yourself, but you are not a pilot. You still have much to learn, much to observe. The talent is there, but it is raw, unrefined. For better or worse, and mostly for the better, your instructor is there to teach, to discipline, to correct, and to protect you throughout the various phases of instruction you have yet to complete.

Chances are you all have experienced something similar to “going solo” while in school. Perhaps you have worked as an intern with a congregation. Perhaps you have even initiated a new ministry, or have taken an existing ministry to a higher level of effectiveness. The euphoria of such endeavors is intoxicating, indeed. But you know, just as the fledgling flight student, that you are still operating on the license of an instructor. You still have the grace, and the forgiveness, of being “just a student.” Those words can be grating, but they are also powerful deterrents against unfair and undeserved attacks. So you serve, as we have all served, under the protecting label of “capable, but not yet quite mature.” The label is at the same time irritating and assuring. You’re getting there, but if the air gets a little turbulent, there is always a more seasoned hand to take the controls.

Some time later comes the one single greatest day in the process of your flight instruction – the day you take your final flight examination. After you land and shut the airplane down, the FAA flight examiner leans over, shakes your hand, and says, “Congratulations, you are a private pilot.” Now you no longer have to ask permission to fly. Now you are truly the master of your own ship. Now you can utter those immortal words, “the sky is the limit.” Oh, the joy!

Except, now the responsibility is ALL YOURS. Now you no longer have the comfort of blaming your instructor. Now when the FAA comes calling, you can not look over your shoulder for your big brother. The world gets a lot smaller, even when it just seemed to open up beyond every horizon. When you fly on your own certificate, you suddenly seem to take all the little decisions a whole lot more seriously. What about the weather? How much weight do I have on the plane? How much fuel do I really need? Have I really gone over my flight plan as seriously as I need to? One bad decision and the FAA can take that little piece of paper away and you have to start all over. Or, worse, lives and property can be at stake.

Today, you have earned your wings. Today we shake your hand and say, “Congratulations, you are now a fully capable, qualified, and endorsed proclaimer of theology and comforter of souls.” Today is what you have been looking forward to for years. It’s done. You’ve finished the race that you started some time ago – and all the plaudits are deeply deserved.

But, little birdie, today we also kick you out of the nest. You’ve got your feathers and your certificates, now get out and fly. And, just to be sure, the air is not going to always be smooth, nor the landings soft. It’s called life. Get over it.

The reality is that many of you – perhaps as many as half or more of you – will not complete a career in ministry, either congregational or academic. You will venture out into congregations comprised of members who think it great sport to destroy the lives of ministers. They have no self-respect of their own, and they gladly share that lack of respect with anyone who dares to claim any authority. Because we send you out to speak with the authority of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, that means they will have no respect for you. Because you will be called upon to challenge their mistaken beliefs and discipline them for their ungodly behavior, they will despise and abhor your work. All the while they will play the martyr and manipulate the situations to make it appear that you are the bully, you are the heavy. They will spare no effort to gather followers to their cause, and your job and your ministry mean nothing to them so long as they win the day and the argument.

You think I am kidding – but this is no laughing matter. Many churches (and university administrations) exist for no other purpose than to destroy the lives and futures of those who dare to challenge their power structures. For some of you the destruction will be complete. I say it now without any hesitation, there are some of you here listening to my words today that will not only leave the ministry, but you will leave the faith. Paul essentially said the same thing to the Ephesian elders, so I am sharing this will pretty good company. Ministry is not for everyone, and for some the pain of rejection is so intense, and so debilitating, that there simply is no rehabilitation. My heart breaks for you.

There are a number of you, who, after being so treated, will decide to leave the ministry for a season – but time and circumstances will so converge as to provide you with a second chance at ministry. So, you will discover that after a decade or so, that the fire is still burning, the hope has not been extinguished. You will return, your feathers clipped, your wings a little ruffled, but never-the-less, alive and kicking. Jeremiah preached for years with no tangible results. We can expect no better – unless you believe you can preach more faithfully and more effectively than Jeremiah. But, Jeremiah kept preaching. I pray for those of you who fit this pattern. Life will not be easy, but I pray that at the end it will be fruitful.

And, to be honest, some of you will skip through life unmolested by the demons your classmates will face. You will be given cars and golf club memberships and have your vacations to the Caribbean fully funded by a rich member of the congregation. Just when that happens, please do not come back to the next reunion and brag about it to the other poor schmucks who go from month to month, and sometimes from Sunday to Sunday, wondering if they will have a job on Monday.

Congratulations, graduates. Today is your day. Enjoy it, because tomorrow belongs to the evil one, and he will not rest until he has tested all of you, and has devoured as many as he can. You wanted this, you’ve worked tirelessly for it – now the challenge is yours. You didn’t study all those hours and spend all that money to earn a certificate so you could sit on a bench and look to the clouds.

It’s time to fly.

Honoring Heroes – and Respecting Differences

In my last post I shared some reasons why David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of my heroes of theology. I freely admit that my thinking contains more than one paradox. These two are hardly theological twins. Maybe that is one reason they attract me so much. In no way whatsoever do I want to suggest they shared the same theological conclusions in every possible way. And so, in part to clarify some issues, and in part to continue to honor their influence, I share these rather significant differences between my two favorite theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trained in, and always practiced, the classical form of liberal biblical studies that was current in Germany in the early 20th century. David Lipscomb would NEVER have accepted what Bonhoeffer viewed as something that was self-evident – that theologians could, and should, identify the purely human elements involved in the production of Scripture as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would have viewed Lipscomb’s literalist approach to Scripture as being reactionary. But it is here that I find a remarkable similarity – when Bonhoeffer preached, he preached the Bible as fervently and “literally” as Lipscomb would have. That is to say, when Bonhoeffer was doing academic theology, he leaned heavily on his liberal training. But when he preached, he preached the text as if he were a conservative’s conservative. He thought the “theology” that was being taught at Union Theological Seminary was laughable – he wrote that the only place he could find the gospel being preached in New York City was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I am not the only one who strives to hold two vastly different viewpoints in tension!
  • Bonhoeffer accepted the view that the universal church was comprised of the various “churches” found primarily in Europe. He was mystified by the proliferation of “denominations” in America – I’m not sure he ever really figured out what Americans did with the concept of the church. Lipscomb was a Restorationist – he was firmly convinced there was only one church, and it could not be comprised of a number of different bodies who held significantly different beliefs. Lipscomb rejected both the European view of the church, as well as the uniquely American experiment in denominationalism.
  • Similarly, Bonhoeffer had no issue with promoting the classic creeds of Christianity, and was active in formulating the Confession of Faith that defined the Confessing Church in Germany. Lipscomb believed that creeds were unnecessary, and that Confessions of Faith were divisive, not unitive. Yet, even here, there is a strange intersection of belief between these two men – both men believed that the church they were a part of was the one true church! Bonhoeffer famously wrote (and was excoriated for it) that if one separated himself from the Confessing Church, he separated himself from salvation. For Bonhoeffer there was one church, and the Confessing Church in Germany was that church (or at the very least, was a part of that church). Lipscomb would have said the same thing (and perhaps did), except that the church to which he would have referred would have been a conservative Church of Christ (certainly not a congregation of the Disciples of Christ!) Coming from two radically different approaches, both men ended up basically in the same place.
  • As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Lutheran, it goes without much explanation that he and David Lipscomb would have had significant differences in understanding the Lord’s Supper.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the finest explanations on the topic of baptism that I have ever read – and yet, he concluded that infant baptism was perfectly acceptable. [Note, this is one area where Bonhoeffer just drives me crazy. His justification for the necessity of baptism could have been written by Alexander Campbell or David Lipscomb, but then he concludes that it is this necessity for baptism that mandates, or at the very least, allows for, infant baptism. His logic makes my head spin. The only thing I can suggest is that, like every single one of us, Bonhoeffer was a product of his theology, not just a shaper of that theology. For him to have rejected infant baptism would have meant far more of a radical turn than he was willing to make, and, for the battle in which he was so completely devoted, the specific question of infant vs. believer’s baptism did not occupy a critical position.] Lipscomb rejected the idea of “inherited” or “original” sin, and for him infant baptism was not only unnecessary, it was unbiblical.
  • Related to another point above, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of the 1930’s. His conception of the church universal not only allowed this, it pretty much demanded it. Lipscomb would have rejected this approach of recognizing the church universal, and would have been emphatic that the only way to unify divided Christianity was to return to a simple and straightforward understanding of the New Testament.
  • Bonhoeffer held firmly to the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” One of the distinctive views of Lipscomb is that there is only one kingdom, that of God, and that any attempt of man to govern within that kingdom was a repudiation of God’s kingship. Therefore, for Lipscomb, a Christian should not participate in any form of government, even down to voting! Bonhoeffer believed that government was established and blessed by God, so long as it reserved its authority for strictly “secular” purposes. The role of the church was to teach the government how to govern appropriately, and to correct the government when it overstepped its boundaries.

As I mentioned in my first post – the differences between Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer are vast and deep. One should in no way confuse the beliefs of these two men! However, the intersection of their thoughts, where they do indeed intersect, is profoundly interesting to me, for the very reason that they approach Scripture and the church from such differently positions. I am captivated by both. I favor Lipscomb in many ways because he is family – we share the same ecclesiastical heritage. I find his political views refreshing, and dare I say it, far more biblical than most of my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. I believe Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both drank from the same Spirit. I can see, despite their differences, a strange union. Maybe its because I am so strange. Who knows.

Anyway, thanks for sharing a bit of my conservative, and liberal, heritage!

Honoring Heroes – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and David Lipscomb

Okay, maybe I’ve have put the whole “orthodoxy/heresy” question to bed. Time to move on.

I have often ruminated that the two greatest theological minds to have influenced me are (in chronological order) David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer would get the nod in terms of amount of written material that I have, but Lipscomb would get the nod in terms of theological agreement. I have suggested that if I were to name my favorite theologian, it would be David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb

While separated by a generation (Bonhoeffer was nine when Lipscomb died), an ocean (Lipscomb and American, Bonhoeffer a German), a culture, and vast theological differences, the two share some striking similarities; maybe not profound to many, but poignant to me. Here are just a few of the most important:

  • Both were center-right of their respective churches. Bonhoeffer was considered an irritant by many in the German church. He was labeled a trouble maker and extremist. Lipscomb was also viewed as somewhat of an extremist – not so much for his theological positions, but for the radical ethical positions he drew from those theological positions. While Lipscomb could also be attacked by those further to the right on the Restorationist continuum, both of these leaders were marked for their obstinate refusal to surrender core biblical teachings, or to compromise for the purpose of “just getting along” with their opponents.
  • Both were committed to reforming these churches. Lipscomb would use the word “restore” rather than “reform,” but both men dedicated themselves to correcting what they saw were serious errors in the church. Both men were able to see that the error they were facing was not simply the presence of individual “sin” in the church, but rather that there was a systemic bent toward sinfulness in the church. Any preacher can preach against sin, but it takes a true visionary to attack the presence of systemic Sin in the life of the church.
  • As a result, both men were willing to face the inevitable wrath of former friends and colleagues. Neither man was exempt from such wrath.
  • Both men were pacifist. This is truly intriguing. Both men saw the error, the futility, of war. Lipscomb lived through the American Civil War, and preached tirelessly that Christians in the South were not to take up arms against Christians in the North. Bonhoeffer was just a youth during World War I, and as a patriotic German, defended the act of going to war even as a young preacher during his ministry in Spain. However, by the time Hitler ascended to the role of Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer had come to reject his earlier defense of militarism, and was fully aware that his acceptance of pacifism might ultimately cost him his life. It was a risk he was willing to take.
  • Both men were deeply committed to mentoring, teaching, and developing young men for the ministry of the church. Bonhoeffer led an illegal seminary for Lutheran pastors, and Lipscomb created a college for the purpose of educating and training young preachers. Through their tutelage, scores of Christians have been influenced by this interest and love for training the next generation of preachers.
  • Finally, (at least for this post), both men were deeply committed to the power of God to effect the changes necessary to reform or restore the church, but both men were aware that humans were going to have to change if there was to be any lasting transformation. You could say that both had almost a child-like faith in God both to will and to empower the church to change. After all, it was Jesus who said, “Unless you change and become like these little children . . .” Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both radiated that child-like love and faith in their God.

Perhaps other similarities could be drawn, and perhaps I will do so. Obviously I have not labeled all of the differences – and they are numerous and not insignificant. I have considered it profound how two men who, at least ostensibly have so little in common, have been such influences in my life. If you know me very well at all, you should be able to see David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer in my words. Alas, I’m afraid I’ve not put much of their courage or their holiness into actual lived experience, but maybe I can change that over the remaining portion of my life on this earth.